Relative caregivers are parenting 2.7 million American children in kinship care. This group of caregivers often goes without critical support that is available, sometimes to the detriment of their own well-being, according to a new audit by the congressional watchdog agency.
The General Accounting Office audit concluded that two federal agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that are tasked with supporting kin caregivers – the Administration for Children and Families and the Administration for Community Living – could do more to help states and communities get the available assistance to those caregivers, most of whom are grandparents, according to the GAO report. Only a small fraction of those children – about 139,000 – are living with kin within the foster care system while their parents work through reunification efforts. For the most part, the caregivers have stepped up on their own to care for children whose own parents cannot do so themselves due to parental incarceration and substance abuse, as well as poverty, mental health struggles and parental death.
“Taking on this responsibility can require caregivers to navigate complex systems to access needed supports and services for the children, and lead to significant hardships for the caregivers, especially for older kin caregivers, who may be living on fixed incomes or have health issues of their own,” said GAO, in a letter to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which requested the audit.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse by posing additional health and economic threats for older kin caregivers, the report noted.
According to the report, “Child Welfare and Aging Programs: HHS Could Enhance Support for Grandparents and Other Relative Caregivers,” there are federal programs designed to help kin. These include kinship navigator programs, which support one-stop referral points to connect relatives with available benefits, counseling or respite care, and the National Family Caregiver Support Program, which helps states pay for services and supports. But, GAO noted, “many states are not using them as much as they could, if at all.”
HHS officials said because programs are optional, they primarily provide technical assistance and other supports in response to states’ requests, particularly once the programs are no longer new. But by not continuing to proactively provide information and best practices about these programs and initiatives, GAO said, the agency may be missing opportunities to help states better support kinship caregivers.
“States may need reminders and more information, especially as their circumstances change, such as with the economic and health shocks of COVID-19,” the report said.